Judge Lee urges you, "Do not read this review" of the hilarious Czech Dream. Do not laugh. Do not be entertained. Do not ask yourself questions about our own culture of consumerism.
"I mean if you filmmakers are used to lying to people, we don't lie in advertising."
Perpetrated by a pair of Czech film students, the biggest culture-jamming prank in recent years says as much about American-style consumerism as it does about the gullibility of Czech shoppers. Executive producer Morgan Spurlock presents Czech Dream, a documentary chronicling the hypermarket hoax of 2004.
Facts of the Case
Despite posters reading "Don't go there" and "Don't spend" on a sunny May morning, hundreds of shoppers flocked to an empty meadow outside Prague for the opening of a new big-box mega-store, or hypermarket. When the gates opened, the crowd charged over the grassy field only to discover that the store did not exist. Czech Dream is the story of how two film students, Vit Klusak and Filip Remunda, orchestrated the hoax and shows how a slick advertising campaign brought the bargain-hungry Czech public out to something too good to be true.
The first part of the movie details how the advertising campaign was assembled. The filmmakers contracted a hip ad agency keen to take part in the experiment. "Our ads work even if the product sucks or doesn't exist at all," boasts the agency executive. With great professionalism they create a logo, record a theme song, film TV spots, and conduct some market testing. They provide what looks like a thorough and expensive service; and the opening-day crowd is proof the filmmakers got their money's worth.
The real surprise occurs in the aftermath of the hoax as the filmmakers stay to talk with their victims. There are plenty of pissed-off people but most of the frustrated shoppers appear to take it in stride. As much as they dislike being made to look foolish they also acknowledge that they let themselves be fooled. It is a fascinating public reaction, suggesting that either Czechs are philosophical by nature or they are all good sports when it comes to public pranks.
Hart Sharp Video and Arts Alliance America, under the "Morgan Spurlock Presents" banner, bring the Czech Dream to America in a bare-bones DVD release. Since his success with Super Size Me, Spurlock has become the Tarantino of the documentary film world by keeping active with his own projects and serving as executive producer for other people's movies. In an introduction to the movie Spurlock confesses that he wishes he had thought up this idea himself. Certainly, the filmmakers wanted to open a dialogue about Western-style consumerism and it is not hard to imagine the same stunt being staged in North America—though the victim's reaction would likely be less forgiving and not nearly as introspective, I suspect.
For me, the meatiest part of the documentary involved the mechanics of the marketing campaign. The amount of work that the ad firm does to ensure their message gets delivered properly is remarkable. From the comedy of Klusak and Remunda getting a makeover to the intimacy of focus group testing (with varying degrees of complexity and technology) to the grunt work of handing out flyers on the street, we get a behind-the-scenes look at how a slick marketing campaign is pulled off. Some tension arises when a few of the ad agency's staff voice reservations about the work they are doing and how they risk crossing the line into plain lying.
In the aftermath of the prank I wanted to hear more from the filmmakers. To their credit, Klusak and Remunda stay to confront their victims but we do not hear them offer any explanation to the public aside from their desire to see how people would react. Interspersed with the opening-day footage are a few clips from television news that show how the hoax even had politicians answering for it.
For the most part, this is a good-looking documentary but the visual style of the movie is inconsistent—the credits list nine camera operators (some probably fellow film students). The footage originated on video and some of the budding cinematographers handle the format better than others. There are beautiful shots of the giant banner meant to indicate the front of the phony store, for example. In contrast, the spinning pan of the inside of a mall is an indistinct blur that does not resolve well on video and becomes a momentary distraction due to its technical ugliness. Still, considering the number of hands involved and the constraints of a (presumably) no-budget production, this is a professional-quality documentary.
The movie does not have any scenes that require an elaborate sound mix. There are a few moments, when music is featured in the foreground, which make use of the stereo mix but otherwise the audio is appropriately serviceable to the presentation.
The disc features no extras aside from Morgan Spurlock's introduction, which is marginally helpful at establishing some context for the prank.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie is essentially the final project by these film school students. It is a reality TV-style performance by them rather than about them and consequently the viewer is kept at a distance from the thoughts of the pranksters. Aside from their videotaped introduction to the project, they do not discuss what they were hoping to achieve with their hoax. Another aspect that is not addressed is the cost of the prank. Apparently the experiment was financed through a student grant from the government. Was that enough to cover the massive advertising campaign and other production costs of the movie? There is a brief suggestion of corporate sponsorship deals when the filmmakers receive their makeover from a brand-name clothing store, but it is a subject that isn't discussed in the movie.
At the risk of sounding like I've missed the point of the movie, the bare-bones nature of this disc makes me want a little more. Aside from the prompt to press play from the menu screen there are no other options. Three trailers for other movies play automatically when the disc is loaded, but they cannot be accessed manually from the menu. The movie is broken up into chapters but there is no index of scenes. The English subtitles are burned into the image.
The scope of the debate Klusak and Remunda intended to spark remains vague but it is plain to see that their stunt had an impact on the Czech public consciousness. Czech Dream casts a light on our susceptibility to glossy marketing that is as relevant in America and Canada as it is in the Czech Republic. This documentary is a fascinating look at consumer manipulation but above all it is a well-executed, original and often hilarious prank.
The filmmakers are granted release from film school and are free to find their own funding for future movies. The court acknowledges Hart Sharp Video and Arts Alliance America for bringing the Czech documentary to our shores, but they are dismissed without thanks for an unremarkable DVD package. Not guilty.
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